A French village, a good restaurant, and a year’s worth of time to spend in both add stock to the lives of Sanders and his family.
You’ll find Les Arques on Michelin map #79, tucked away in the chaotic limestone landscape of southwest France, where one-lane roads, crumbling hilltop towns, and 12th-century Romanesque churches give medieval rhythms to the days. Les Arques, where Sanders (The Yard, 1999) spent his year, has 50 houses, 169 people (including those in the village and its surrounding lands), and one business. As agriculture becomes more tenuous economically and the population drops, Les Arques survives, Sanders figures, thanks to the French love of cultural heritage, first, and of good eating, second. As for heritage, not only are there Lascaux and a picaresque history, but also a museum and attendant art community honoring a celebrated local, Ossip Zadkine, France’s most famous sculptor in the years after WWII (though “I certainly had no idea who he was when I arrived,” admits Sanders, adding that he finds Zadkine’s work “bad Picasso”). As for food, though the area may be poor, its graces include foie gras, lamb, saffron, truffles, and the vin de Cahors, and it’s a test to find a bad restaurant. Sanders has no wish to make the village sound precious: the apocalyptic stink of duck poop, the politics of foie gras, and the stony exterior of the local population (Sanders finds his six-year-old daughter and the friendly family dog to be good ice-breakers) overcome any suggestion of quaint, selective neglect. The author renders the restaurant’s workday as cannily as he does the village’s moments of abrupt dislocation from the present, when the air suddenly seems to hold a thousand years of history in it.
A good and leathery year abroad, an honest and deeply enjoyed experience that avoids skimming off only the fruity bonbons while neglecting the ruck of daily life.